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Talking Smack in Northfield

hypodermic.pngMinnesota’s small towns.  They may seem quiet, and even boring, on their well-scrubbed, well-fed surfaces.  But don’t tell that to Gary Smith or Katherine Kersten.  They know better. 

Smith, who until this week served as the police chief of a small Minnesota college town called Northfield, called a news conference earlier this month to announce to the press of the Twin Cities — the nearest major TV and radio market — that as many as 250 high school and college students in this town — nearly one out of every 75 persons — was either a serious heroin or oxycodone addict, with the addict’s ringleaders operating out of the local high school.  Worse, roving bands of drug-addicted gangs were stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down, triggering a crime wave.   Troops of young addicts were conning the local hospitals out of oxycodone and other drugs to feed their habits.

The news whipped through the Minneapolis and St. Paul media like a chainsaw through Jell-O.  Anchorpeople and radio talkers were falling all over each other to express shock (and maybe a little schadenfreude) that nice little Northfield — whose last big crime spree was back in 1876, when its citizenry took on Jesse James’ gang — would be such a den of iniquity.  Leading the charge was the StarTribune’s very own Miss Gulch, conservative columnist Katherine Kersten:

Today, in short, we discourage reckless pleasure seeking generally by invoking more self-interest: the consequences of drinking or sex may inconvenience you, or harm your health. Today, we rarely tell our kids that certain behaviors are morally wrong or beneath human dignity. Nor do we emphasize that obligations to others — parents, teachers and fellow citizens — should bar such behavior.

We prefer to believe that this philosophy of hedonism and radical individualism — checked only by a fuller consideration of self-interest –won’t have long-term negative consequences.

But we shouldn’t be surprised when our young people act on it, and do so in frightening ways that we didn’t anticipate.

There’s only one small problem with the story of the Great Northfield Smack-and-Crime Epidemic:  It’s bullshit. 

As a July 17 article in the StarTribune states:

• School authorities have dismissed the notion of a heroin ring at the high school.

• No heroin-possession indictments have been returned.

• Area hospitals report no evidence of young con artists at work.

• The record is mixed on thefts at local colleges, with an increase at Carleton but no such hike at St. Olaf.

Others have raised concerns about the number of young people reportedly using the drug.

Northfield schools Superintendent Chris Richardson, who learned about Smith’s news conference only a couple hours beforehand, was dumbfounded by the chief’s assessment.

“Our numbers just don’t match up,” he said.

Richardson added that in the 2006-07 school year there were 15 students referred for drug treatment who were heroin or oxycodone users.

“What I think many of us are questioning is, was this a significant exaggeration of the reality, and if it was, did we end up with a negative impact along with whatever positive there was?” Richardson said.

In short, Police Chief Smith was talking out his butt, and the city’s school administrators and health professionals were calling him on it.  Curtis Fliegel, a Northfield teen interviewed by Nick Coleman, a reality-based columnist for the StarTribune, stated the following: “If there were that many heroin users in this town, we should be able to look around and see somebody throwing up.” Longtime local blogger Mark Gisleson wondered why it took the Strib so long to fact-check Kersten’s skinny Puritan ass.

But weirdness was not done with Northfield just yet.  The day after this article appeared, Smith went on an indefinite leave of absence — but not before taking a parting shot at the city administrator, Al Roder, implying that Roder was somehow crooked even though whatever evidence Smith had of this wasn’t enough to justify filing charges against him.  The press, not willing to admit that they’d been totally hosed, tried to save face by talking up the political infighting in Northfield, though that just wasn’t as sexy as the roving gangs of blissed-out smack addicts.

As Digby said earlier this week, talking about another journalistic outrage:

This is exactly this kind of thing that makes people like me laugh when I get lectured by professional journalists about “objectivity” and “ethics.” At least I put my political biases up front. These phonies hide behind a veil of journalistic conventions so they can exercise their psychologically stunted desire to stick it to the BMOC, or the dork or whoever these catty little gossips want to skewer for their own pleasure that day. Please, please, no more hand-wringing sanctimony from reporters about the undisciplined, unethical blogosphere. Their glass houses are lying in shards all around their feet.

This whole sordid story is a nice microcosm of journalism as it is practiced in America today.  Media-savvy person makes wild, sensational claims, the press jumps on them and rides them for a few weeks, and then when the claims are debunked, the press, unwilling to admit error or defeat, by and large acts as if they weren’t.  Talking smack, indeed.

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